Business / Tech

‘Engineer-friendly’ Fukuoka pitches merits in campaign to become tech hub

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

It’s a fast-growing city but with a reasonable cost of living, diverse cuisine and close access to an airport. Plus, the city is willing to support new tech projects.

Doesn’t that sound like a great place for engineers?

That’s the sales pitch the city of Fukuoka made last month at a recruiting event in Tokyo as part of its effort to draw more engineers. Kyushu’s biggest city has also declared itself an “Engineer-Friendly City.”

An engineer shortage, which is already severe, is expected to worsen, as such technologies as artificial intelligence, blockchain and virtual reality look likely to spread in the coming years.

“We are acting fast before others start,” Fukuoka Mayor Soichiro Takashima said of the engineering push at the Tokyo event, which was held at Ippudo in Minato Ward, a restaurant and bar that’s part of the Fukuoka-born ramen chain.

Along with representatives from three Fukuoka firms, Takashima pitched the merits of moving to the city.

“In short, Fukuoka is a growing city … we have this determination to keep growing,” he said, adding that Fukuoka wants to turn itself into a center for technology firms.

Fukuoka saw its population increase by 74,767 between 2010 and 2015, the biggest jump among 20 ordinance-designated big cities outside Tokyo with more than 700,000 residents. It had a population of more than 1.57 million as of Aug. 1.

One of the policies spearheaded by Takashima is to attract and encourage entrepreneurs interested in launching startups.

For instance, the city offers to cover a fourth of a startup’s annual office rent — up to ¥15 million — for a year as long as it hires three or more full-time employees and has an office space of at least 60 square meters.

Fukuoka also hosts branches of some leading tech firms, including Line Corp. and Mercari Inc., and its biggest business districts have seen vacancy rates tighten in recent months, dropping to 2.87 percent in May from 11.5 percent in May 2013.

“Not only startups but also various other creative firms have established bases in Fukuoka … (but) the city does not have enough human resources,” Takashima said, assuring the nation’s engineers that they will surely find jobs.

He added that Fukuoka is also supporting corporate efforts to conduct tech experiments, since the city has been designated by Tokyo as a national strategic special zone, which allows companies to launch bold projects via deregulation.

Once the city becomes a tech park, it will be easier for engineers to find more career options and remain there, the mayor said.

What’s more, with rents running at an average of about 60 percent of Tokyo’s, Fukuoka’s living costs are far more reasonable than in the capital. It is also famed for its cuisine, including ramen, gyoza (dumplings) and udon (wheat noodles).

The executives made their best pitches for moving to Kyushu.

Yusuke Suzuki, a director at Line Fukuoka Corp., said both the company and the city will be running an experiment to promote cashless payment systems around Fukuoka, so Line hopes to hire more engineers.

He added that Fukuoka has committed communities of engineers who frequently hold study sessions.

Osamu Hashimoto, head of startup Skydisc Inc., a provider of AI and internet of things-based solutions, noted that in addition to the cheaper living costs, the city is less stressful than Tokyo for commuting.

“Fukuoka hardly has any jam-packed trains,” said Hashimoto, adding the city is quite compact.

“I can just bike to get around within my main work area,” he said.

During a chat session, the mayor and the executives talked casually with the participants while slurping ramen and sipping sake from, of course, Fukuoka.

“I am originally from Shizuoka Prefecture and my wife is not from Tokyo either, so we don’t necessarily have to stay in Tokyo. If there is a better environment to work at a different place, we’ve been hoping to do so,” said Tomotaka Furuhashi, an engineer in his 30s.

He said he heard Fukuoka was a hot topic but did not really know why it was attracting so much attention.

“Now I know that it’s a city that wants to support engineers and startups,” he said. “I’ll look at some job search services and apply if there is a good one.”

Kenichi Tanaka, another engineer who came to the event, said his wife is from Oita Prefecture in Kyushu and wants to move to somewhere close to her hometown.

He said he was reluctant to consider that option but the event made him reconsider.

“Companies from Fukuoka seemed to be really loving the city … now I’d like to visit and check it out,” he said.